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“Operation Choke Point” (OCP) is an interdepartmental initiative by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and federal financial services regulators to discourage financial intermediaries from dealing with consumer fraud-plagued industries.  In an August 4 Heritage Foundation Legal Memorandum, I discuss the misapplication of this potentially beneficial project and recommend possible measures to reform OCP.

If OCP properly focused on helping financial intermediaries better identify indicia of fraud, it would be a laudable initiative.  A recent report by the House Committee on Government Oversight and Government Reform, however, reveals that financial services agencies, such as the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, have under the aegis of OCP created lists of disfavored but lawful industries.  Payday lenders are on the list, but so are such business categories as firearms sales, ammunition sales, and credit repair services, to name just a few.  Apparently third party financial intermediaries may have been “encouraged” by federal regulators not to deal with firms in “disfavored” sectors.  To the extent this is happening, it raises serious rule of law concerns.  Regulators have no legal authority to direct private financial services away from government-disfavored but fully legal activity – such actions promote unfair legally disparate treatment of commercial actors.  Moreover, financial intermediaries and the firms they are pressured into “choking off” suffer welfare losses from such conduct, as do the consumers who are denied access to (or pay higher prices for) desired goods and services supplied by the “choked off” merchants.

Another problem associated with OCP is the Federal Trade Commission’s recent litigation against lawful payment processors and other financial intermediaries for dealing with businesses allegedly engaged in fraud.  The FTC has taken these actions without proof that the intermediaries knew that their clients were engaging in fraud.  The FTC’s actions also may be undermining the usefulness of private sector self-regulatory efforts – embodied, for example, in April 2014 guidelines by the Electronic Transactions Association providing underwriting and monitoring standards that could help payment processors better spot fraud.

My Heritage Legal Memorandum suggests the following measures could reorient OCP in a socially beneficial direction:

  • DOJ and all Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force agencies (federal regulators) should inform the bank and non-bank financial intermediaries they regulate that they are rescinding all lists of “problematic” industries engaging in lawful activities (for example, legal gun sellers) that may trigger federal enforcement concern.
  • In implementing OCP, the federal regulators should state publicly that they oppose all discrimination against companies on grounds that are not directly related to a proven propensity for engaging in fraud or other serious illegal conduct.
  • In implementing OCP, if backed by empirical evidence, federal regulators should issue very specific red-flag indicia of fraud by merchants which, if discovered by financial intermediaries, may justify termination of the intermediaries’ relationships with those merchants, as well as informing the appropriate regulatory agencies. This guidance should clarify that the onus is not being placed on the intermediaries to uncover the indicia and that the intermediaries will not be subject to federal investigation or sanction if fraud by the merchants subsequently is revealed so long as the merchants acted with reasonable prudence, consistent with sound business practices.
  • The FTC should issue a policy statement providing that it will not sue payment processors based on alleged fraud by merchants unless there is evidence that the processors knowingly participated in fraud. Further, the statement should express a preference for deferring in the first place and whenever reasonable to industry self-regulation.

Adoption by federal regulators of recommendations along these lines would protect consumers from financial fraud without hobbling legitimate business interests and depriving consumers of full access to the legal products and services they desire.

That’s the title of an interesting article by Emmanuel Farhi and Jean Tirole in the current issue of the  American Economic Review. Here’s the abstract (emphasis added):

The article shows that time-consistent, imperfectly targeted support to distressed institutions makes private leverage choices strategic complements. When everyone engages in maturity mismatch, authorities have little choice but intervening, creating both current and deferred (sowing the seeds of the next crisis) social costs. In turn, it is profitable to adopt a risky balance sheet. These insights have important consequences, from banks choosing to correlate their risk exposures to the need for macro-prudential supervision.

My inaugural blog on two-sided markets did not elicit much reaction from TOTM readers. Perhaps it was too boring. In a desperate attempt to generate a hostile comment from at least one housing advocate, I have decided to advocate bulldozing homes in foreclosure as one (of several) means to relieve the housing crisis. Not with families inside them, of course. In my mind, the central problem of U.S. housing markets is the misallocation of land: Thanks to the housing boom, there are too many houses and not enough greenery. And bulldozers are the fastest way to convert unwanted homes into parks.

(Before the housing advocates lose their cool, an important disclaimer: Every possible effort should be made to keep a family in their homes, including taxpayer-financed principal modifications for deserving, underwater borrowers. My proposal applies only to vacated homes that have completed the foreclosure process.)

Until the Washington Post ran an article last week, titled Banks turn to demolition of foreclosed properties to ease housing-market pressure, I was reluctant to admit my position in public. I had whispered my idea into the ears of several finance professors, but none was willing to stand behind it. And for good reason: How can one advocate bulldozing a home when so many families are losing their homes?

According to the Post, some of the nation’s largest banks have begun giving away abandoned properties to the state and even footing the $7,500 bill per demolition. In 2009, Ohio passed a law creating “land banks” with the power and money to acquire unwanted properties and put them to better use, like community gardens. Similar laws were passed in Georgia, Maryland, and New York. Wells Fargo donated 300 properties nationwide last year, and Fannie Mae donated 30 properties per month to the Cuyahoga (Ohio) land bank. The story even identified a “land bank expert” at Emory University. Now that the Post has given me cover of plausibility, let’s discuss the costs and benefits.

One of the first lessons in an undergraduate microeconomics class is that bulldozing homes to create construction jobs is a bad idea. Even after those new construction workers rebuild the bulldozed homes, society has the same amount of homes as before but lacks whatever output those workers could have created in the alternative. The objective of economic policy is not to maximize jobs—if that were the case, entire cities would be bulldozed and reconstructed—but rather to allocate resources efficiently. Because so many economists have this lesson in mind (and because so many are pacifists), it is hard to embrace any policy that involves a bulldozer.

But this bulldozer scheme is motivated for different reasons. Too much land has been allocated to homes, many of which were built in bubble during the early half of last decade. As a result, too many neighborhoods in America are afflicted with abandoned properties. A vacant house is estimated to be worth half its normal market value. Imagine trying to sell your house at market rates when a close facsimile is available across the street for half the price! To add insult to injury, the excess supply of abandoned houses invites vandalism and neighborhood blight—the textbook negative externality—further depressing home values. Using data from foreclosures in the Cleveland area, Kobie and Lee (2010) show that the length of time that a home is in foreclosure has a significant drag on neighboring home values.

Well-functioning markets tend to equilibrate supply and demand, but housing markets are highly inefficient in this regard because of the time lag between beginning construction and selling a home: A housing boom sends signals to builders that new construction will be profitable. By the time the housing bust comes, the new builds become permanent mistakes.

To illustrate this “market failure,” consider downtown Miami. A drive down Brickell Avenue reminds one of New York City. Whereas there used to be one row of high-rises on the bay-side, the avenue now boasts rows and rows of developments as far as the eye can see. Had the developers known that many of these complexes would stand empty—the Census Bureau estimates that a whopping 18 percent of Florida’s homes stood vacant in March 2011—they would have tempered their enthusiasm. According to the Florida Association of Realtors, the inventory overhang has sent home prices plunging: the median price for homes sold in January 2011 was seven percent less than January 2010, and prices are expected to fall by another five percent in 2011.

And why is this so troubling for the economic recovery? According to the Fed, the nation’s stock of household real estate declined by $6.5 trillion since 2006. A family spends its income based in part on its perceived wealth; when housing values decline, families spend less. Economists call this the “housing-wealth effect.” Case, Quigley and Shiller (2006) found a statistically significant and rather large effect of housing wealth upon household consumption, and weak evidence of a stock market wealth effect.

A robust stock market might offset this decline in wealth (and hence spending), but the Dow hasn’t cracked 13,000 since April 2008. In the meantime, families are hoarding their cash. The $6.5 trillion elimination in household wealth puts the President’s $300 billion jobs-stimulus program in perspective: If the housing-wealth effect is dragging down spending, then a one-time injection of $300 billion dollars won’t have much of an impact. In contrast, a 10 percent increase a housing wealth—housing values are off 30 percent since 2006—would increase consumption between 0.4 and 1.4 percent according to Case, Quigley and Shiller.

When applied to vacated homes that have completed the foreclosure process, the bulldozer scheme would eliminate some of the excess supply of housing, which would temper the downward pressure on home values. In the place of a cluster of abandoned homes sucking the life of a neighborhood, imagine a children’s park, a dog park, or a community garden. Now that the banks have figured out bulldozing can be cheaper than maintaining the properties, paying taxes, and marketing the properties, the only thing stopping this idea from gaining traction is public sentiment.

My lunch crowd, comprised of economists, retort that the elimination of excess housing supply via bulldozers might be a boon to existing homeowners but would punish future homeowners. But wouldn’t a future homeowner prefer to invest in a slightly more expensive asset class with expected growth over a less expensive asset class with negative expected growth for the foreseeable future?

Finally, the bulldozing scheme need not be mutually exclusive with other schemes to relieve the housing crisis. Other ideas are worth trying, even if they wouldn’t spur much economic activity. Some are calling on Congress to eliminate the barriers keeping underwater homeowners from refinancing their mortgages. According to Macroeconomic Advisers, such a plan might boost GDP growth by 0.1 to 0.2 percentage points, as it merely redistributes money from lenders to borrowers. Others have called for massive debt forgiveness, achieved via a federal program to purchase troubled mortgages and give homeowners better rates. As Ezra Klein of the Post points out, however, the politics of using taxpayer dollars to pay off mortgages are impossible to crack. To stabilize the housing market, Larry Summers calls on government sponsored enterprises to finance mass sales of foreclosed properties to those prepared to rent them out, and to drop their posture of opposition to experimentation for programs such as principal reductions.

Whichever course we take, speed is of the essence: The housing drag is not going away on its own. According to RealtyTrac, the nation’s banks, along with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, have an inventory of more than 816,000 foreclosed properties, with an additional 800,000 working their way through the foreclosure process. Insisting that each of those homes be paired with a family—a noble cause—is tantamount to pushing off recovery for several more years.

I modestly propose to remove a fraction of these homes from inventory. If you don’t like the ring of a bulldozer scheme, how about “The Neighborhood Parks” scheme? Even if I can’t convince any economists to get on board, environmentalists should be pleased.

Here’s Professor Zywicki in the WSJ on the debit card interchange price controls going into effect, and their unintended but entirely predictable consequences:

Faced with a dramatic cut in revenues (estimated to be $6.6 billion by Javelin Strategy & Research, a global financial services consultancy), banks have already imposed new monthly maintenance fees—usually from $36 to $60 per year—on standard checking and debit-card accounts, as well as new or higher fees on particular bank services. While wealthier consumers have avoided many of these new fees—for example, by maintaining a sufficiently high minimum balance—a Bankrate survey released this week reported that only 45% of traditional checking accounts are free, down from 75% in two years.

Some consumers who previously banked for free will be unable or unwilling to pay these fees merely for the privilege of a bank account. As many as one million individuals will drop out of the mainstream banking system and turn to check cashers, pawn shops and high-fee prepaid cards, according to an estimate earlier this year by economists David Evans, Robert Litan and Richard Schmalensee. (Their study was supported by banks.)

Consumers will also be encouraged to shift from debit cards to more profitable alternatives such as credit cards, which remain outside the Durbin amendment’s price controls. According to news reports, Bank of America has made a concerted effort to shift customers from debit to credit cards, including plans to charge a $5 monthly fee for debit-card purchases. Citibank has increased its direct mail efforts to recruit new credit card customers frustrated by the increased cost and decreased benefits of debit cards.

This substitution will offset the hemorrhaging of debit-card revenues for banks. But it is also likely to eat into the financial windfall expected by big box retailers and their lobbyists. They likely will return to Washington seeking to extend price controls to credit cards. …

Todd closes with a nice point about where the impact of these regulations will be felt most:

Conceived of as a narrow special-interest giveaway to large retailers, the Durbin amendment will have long-term consequences for the consumer banking system. Wealthier consumers will be able to avoid the pinch of higher banking fees by increasing their use of credit cards. Many low-income consumers will not.

Read the whole thing.

 

The Durbin Fee

Thom Lambert —  18 August 2011

Given the crucial role debit card “swipe” fees played in causing the recent financial crisis, Illinois Senator Dick Durbin insisted that the Dodd-Frank law (you know, the one that left Fannie and Freddie untouched) impose price controls on debit card transactions.  Ben Bernanke, who apparently doesn’t have enough on his plate, was tasked with determining banks’ processing and fraud-related costs and setting a swipe fee that’s just high enough to cover those costs.  Mr. Bernanke first decided that the aggregate cost totaled twelve cents per swipe.  After receiving over 11,000 helpful comments, Mr. Bernanke changed his mind.  Banks’ processing and fraud costs, he decided, are really 21 cents per swipe, plus 0.05 percent of the transaction amount.  In a few weeks (on October 1), the government will require banks to charge no more than that amount for each debit card transaction.

SHOCKINGLY, this price control seems to be altering other aspects of the deals banks strike with their customers.  The WSJ is reporting that a number of banks, facing the prospect of reduced revenues from swipe fees, are going to start charging customers an upfront, non-swipe fee for the right to make debit card purchases.  Wells Fargo, J.P. Morgan Chase, Suntrust, Regions, and Bank of America have announced plans to try or explore these sorts of fees — “Durbin Fees,” you might call them.

Whoever would have guessed that Mr. Durbin’s valiant effort to prevent future financial crises by imposing brute price controls would have had these sorts of unintended consequences?

Fortunately for me, I can just switch to using my credit card, which will not be subject to the price controls imposed by Messrs Durbin and Bernanke.  Because I earn a decent salary and have a good credit history, this sort of a switch won’t really hurt me.  In fact, as banks increase the rewards associated with credit card use (in an attempt to encourage customers to use credit in place of debit cards), I may be able to earn some extra goodies. 

Of course, lots of folks — especially those who are out of work or have defaulted on some financial obligations because of the financial crisis and ensuing recession — don’t have access to cheap credit.  They can’t avoid Durbin Fees the way I (and Messrs Durbin and Bernanke) can.  Oh well, I’m sure Mr. Durbin and his colleagues can come up with a subsidy for those folks.

News comes that the DOJ and SEC are “examining whether some of the world’s biggest banks colluded to manipulate a key interest rate before and during the financial crisis, affecting trillions of dollars in loans and derivatives, say people familiar with the situation.”  The Wall Street Journal Reports that:

The inquiry, led by the U.S. Justice Department and Securities and Exchange Commission, is analyzing whether banks were understating their borrowing costs. At the time, banks were struggling with souring assets on balance sheets and questions about liquidity. A bank that borrowed at higher rates than peers would likely have signaled that its troubles could be worse than it had publicly admitted.

Roughly $10 trillion in loans and $350 trillion in derivatives are tied to Libor, which affects costs for everything from corporate bonds to car loans. If the rate was kept artificially low, borrowers likely weren’t harmed, though lenders could complain that the rates they charged for loans were too low. Derivatives contracts could be mispriced because of any manipulation of Libor.

I have submitted a comment to the Federal Reserve Board concerning Regulation II, along with the American Enterprise Institute’s Alex Brill, Christopher DeMuth, Alex J. Pollock, and Peter Wallison, as well as my George Mason colleague Todd Zywicki.  Regulation II implements the interchange fee provisions of the Dodd-Frank Act.

The comment makes a rather straightforward and simple point:

We write to express our concern that the Federal Reserve Board has not to date taken the prudent and, importantly, legally required step of conducting a competitive impact analysis of Regulation II, which implements the interchange fee provisions of section 1075 of the Dodd-Frank Act (Pub L. 111-203). We consider this to be one of the most significant legal changes to the payment system’s competitive landscape since the Electronic Funds Transfer Act in 1978. This dramatic statutory and subsequent regulatory change will undoubtedly trigger a complex set of consequences for all firms participating in the payment system as well as for consumers purchasing both retail goods and financial services. The Federal Reserve’s obligation to conduct a competitive impact analysis of Regulation II is an appropriate and prudent safeguard against legal change with potentially pernicious consequences for the economy and consumers. Given the Board’s own well-crafted standards, we do not believe it is appropriate for the Board to move forward in implementing Regulation II without the required competitive impact analysis.

The rest of the comment appears below the fold.

Continue Reading…

BoA is trading around $11.  Its book value is $21.45.  The difference has a lot to do with whether investors in mortgage-backed securities will be able to get BoA (and other banks) to repurchase hundreds of billions of dollars of mortgage-backed securities because the bonds didn’t meet representations and warranties in the bond contracts.  Here’s Carney on yesterday’s $47 billion demand against BoA:

The consortium claims that part of Countrywide’s failure to service the loans includes its failure to buy back loans that should have been ineligible to be include in the mortgage securities pools because they didn’t live up to the promised underwriting standards.  

 Quickly scanning through reports I see the following issues, among others:

  • What exactly were the misrepresentations and warranty breaches?  Bloomberg reports that the problems could include faulty appraisals and failing to include appropriate documentation needed for foreclosures. What else?
  • Were they material? If not, they’re not actionable. Bloomberg notes the losses may have resulted from the bad economy rather than loan defects. 
  • Who has standing to sue?  A demand often requires a significant percentage, say 25%, of the holders.  Query:  which holders?
  • What’s the statute of limitations?
  • What is the exposure at the bank level?  Countrywide, for example, is a separate BoA subsidiary.  Can BoA just put it in bankruptcy and walk away?
  • What’s the size of the total problem?  Bloomberg mentions another effort by investors holding more than $500 billion of mortgage-backed securities.

No doubt the banks have legions of lawyers advising them who collectively know some facts and law the market doesn’t.  Banks have limited obligations to affirmatively disclose all the details in real time, and non-material misrepresentations are not actionable. Which means there’s a lot investors don’t know.  A lot of this information involves the legal consequences of various factual scenarios whose likelihood the market could handicap.

Sure would be worth it to investors to get more info.  Think about that yawning gap between BoA’s market and book.

I’ve argued that there’s a demand for legal talent outside of the one-to-one advice market.  This would include selling legal information to the capital markets.  The putback mess would seem to be a time when such information would be particularly valuable.

The Federal Reserve has been working with other international banking regulators in the Basel III process to alter bank capital reserves so that they are no longer pro-cyclical and based on unrealistic assumptions about economic growth during bull markets.  The Fed now urges that banks need to hold reserves on a counter-cyclical basis.  When times are good, banks will be required to put away more capital, which they can’t lend, as a buffer against future downturns.  But what is good for the goose should be good for the gander. It’s time for the Fed to consider a rainy day fund, invested in gold, to support its discount window for lending to troubled firms during financial crisis.  The Fed holds some gold, but not nearly enough.  And, I realize that the Fed’s gold portfolio has increased in value significantly since 2008, but that misses the point entirely.

The gold standard, which required central banks to hold gold to back up currency at a fixed rate of exchange, is a bedrock of monetary policy history.  Its appeal continues to resonate with libertarians and inflation hawks owing to its inflation fighting powers.  Between 1880 and 1914, a period when the United States was on a firm gold standard, inflation averaged only 0.1 percent per year.  After World War II, the U.S. government slowly abandoned the gold standard through its consistent deficiencies on promises to guarantee trade deficits with gold, until in 1971 President Nixon killed the gold standard once and for all.

The appeal of the gold standard is seductive, but its lack of flexibility severely constrains central banks in the midst of crisis.  The gold standard’s more damaging historical drawback was that it brought abrupt price shocks to the economy upon new discoveries of major gold veins.  Alan Greenspan, an ardent proponent of the gold standard in his early years, eventually abandoned his support for the idea.  And yet, there remains some usefulness for central banks holding significant positions in gold.

Gold remains the ultimate counter-cyclical commodity.  When investors fear the prospect of inflation, or the effects of pending recession, they tend to flock to the certainty of gold.  They do this because other investors do it, with regularity, and have done so in tough times through the centuries of history.  And yet, as of April 2007, the Federal Reserve held only $11 billion worth of gold out of nearly $900 billion in total assets.  I’ll admit, that gold portfolio has increased in value, significantly, over the last three years, but not nearly enough to cover the over $1 trillion in extraordinary AIG lending and Fannie/Freddie risky asset purchases the Fed has been coaxed into over the same time frame.

By any reasonable comparison to its positions over the last 50 years, the Fed is overcommitted.  The outstanding loans on the Fed’s balance sheet have more than doubled in the last year.  Many of those assets, which used to be comprised of readily marketable Treasury bonds, now consist of bonds in Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and other toxic assets that could be difficult to sell off when the Fed needs to soak up money from Wall Street to manage interest rates if inflation picks up steam.  Most commentators talk more about the prospect of deflation than about the prospect of inflation these days, but then again that’s been true prior to many of the more inflationary periods in history.

The Federal Reserve has had to rely on the Treasury Department and the Congress to help fund its efforts to stabilize the financial system.  The Federal Reserve began as an institution with the dual mandate, under its enabling act, of minimizing unemployment while also minimizing inflation.  That delicate tightrope is difficult enough to maneuver.  But when the Federal Reserve is also encouraged to buy Treasury bonds to finance government spending, in return for the Treasury backing up the Federal Reserve’s lending, the Fed’s independence to fulfill its mandate comes under threat.

If the Fed had a more significant position in a counter-cyclical investment like gold, it might be able to use the windfall profits of that fund, which can be expected at the beginning of a market panic, at just the time it is needed most at the  New York Federal Reserve Bank’s discount window for emergency loans to failing banks and other businesses.  And the Fed wouldn’t need to limit itself to gold, other precious metals could also play a useful role in counter-cyclical investments.

The gold standard is likely an outmoded philosophy.  But counter-cyclical investments like gold and other precious commodities hold the potential to enhance the independence and versatility of the Federal Reserve in fulfilling its mission even in the midst of unprecedented financial crisis.  We don’t need to think of the logic underlying arguments of gold-bugs as an all-or-nothing proposition.  Perhaps we should simply try dialing up the Fed’s gold exposure as a start.